Therapy AnimalsTherapy Animals

Think of therapy animals and you probably think of dogs, but canines aren’t the only caregivers in the animal kingdom. As therapy services expand to reach more people and pet owners look for ways to serve their communities, there’s a growing menagerie of therapy animals available to brighten the days of seniors, kids, and everyone in between.

Calming cats

Therapy cats can be a boon to dementia patients and seniors with mobility problems. Cats make good lap companions and can spark sensory delight as well as memories of childhood pets. Although the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America recently recommended that therapy cats be excluded from hospitals, trained feline friends make visits to assisted living communities, nursing homes, and other venues.

Relaxing rabbits

Therapy rabbits, like their cat counterparts, are ideal lap animals and often remind seniors of pets they owned as children. Non-profit groups such as Bunnies in Baskets help to screen and train rabbits and owners to find rabbits that enjoy being petted and fawned over. And it’s not just people who benefit — many of the rabbits that work in BIB’s therapeutic programs were rescued from neglect or abandonment and rehabilitated by their owners.

Gentle guinea pigs

Guinea pigs round out the “lap animals” that work as therapy pets, with many of the same advantages as rabbits. Peninsula Guinea Pig Rescue of Virginia points out that not only do guinea pigs purr but that they never have dog breath. The ideal therapy guinea pig is calm in new situations and enjoys spending time interacting with people.

Benevolent birds

Birds don’t have the snuggly fur of the lap pets above, but they do often have a lot of personality. For this reason, some cage bird owners and even chicken owners screen and train their birds to work with seniors, kids, and veterans with PTSD.

The On a Wing and a Prayer bird therapy program in Tulsa has been brightening the days of seniors since 2000 with visits from tame and friendly cockatiels, conures, and parakeets who perch on patients and enjoy being petted. Across the country in Littleton, Massachusetts, a flock of specially selected chickens lives on the grounds of the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley. Residents say that watching the hens and holding them harkens back to the farm life that many of them knew as children.

Laid-back llamas

Life Care Center residents also enjoy quality time with therapy llamas, unlikely as that may sound. The South American camel relatives have a reputation for spitting that handlers say is exaggerated. Llamas who qualify as therapy animals are calm, enjoy being hugged, and are well-mannered indoors.

Mtn. Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas in Oregon is home to the “world’s most beloved llama,” an auburn charmer named Rojo. Rojo makes visits to local nursing homes, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. He’s also an internationally recognized “PR llama” and makes frequent local and network TV appearances.

These aren’t the only unusual therapy animals. National training organization Pet Partners says that miniature horses and pigs, full-size horses, alpacas, donkeys and even rats can serve as therapy pets. To qualify, pet and owner teams must take a class, be cleared by a veterinarian, and pass an evaluation before registering. To learn more and to find therapy programs in your area, contact Pet Partners or the Animal Humane Society.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

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